Introcomp 2016: Bestiefone

By Rob and Mark (Meanwhile Netprov Studio) (Ink/Unity)

Game title screen
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Game’s title screen: winking emoji and game title over a closeup of someone’s hand opening a phone cover

The premise: your phone system’s started talking to you, and the chipper, more youthful Bestiefone is at loggerheads with prim, utilitarian SYSTEM. I am fond of this premise. The tone between the two is nicely contrasted.

Bestiefone is technically polished: it’s written in ink and Unity, and functions as a standalone app. There was some attempt at a skeuomorphic interface, though one is tempted to contrast this with A Normal Lost Phone, which really commits to the impression of a smartphone.  Bestiefone’s focus is not to simulate a phone. Bestiefone’s – and the in-game narrator’s – focus is on communication.

Game text - Don't buy, it User! They pretwnd that SYSTEM is the same as me. But it IS NOT! SYSTEM is just algomathed and datadriven. However whereas, I -- I am artificiamatically intelligenced!
Game screenshot

This game has not reached its most user-friendly state yet, though: there’s no way to fast-forward the text appearing (as with Ren’Py), and I don’t seem to be able to switch over to other windows once I start up the app. I’m not sure if this is a bug or if it’s intentional.

The narrator’s writing style may put some off. It harks back to a time where z’s replaced s’s with abandon. It sometimes feels over the top. The narrator is impulsive, mercurial, but lonely and ultimately well-meaning. For me, though, what made it hard to continue playing was the lack of direction and interaction. It seems ironic that you can’t interact with the one part of the App which wants to talk to you, where instead I was expecting some space for me to explore or interact in a more open-ended way.

Still, Bestiefone strikes me as being terribly good-natured and quite earnest. Given some direction and more for the player to do, I think this could be good.

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Introcomp 2016: Astronomical Territories Of The Great British Empire

By G_G (Quest). This is an entry in Introcomp 2016, a competition focusing on game introductions. I participated last year.

Written in Quest, this is set in London, and begins on the banks of the Thames. There are nods at a colonial empire, and something about stars. Or, more precisely, a “clouded planet”.

I’ll just say it up front: the ending is far, far too abrupt. There is no inkling of plot, barely a whisper of setting. And that’s a problem in Introcomp, because to get the reader invested in the story, you’ve got to make them care about the situation or the characters, and there’s too little in this introduction to do either.

As I slowly realised during my own experience in Introcomp 2015, setting alone will not work. Setting is passive; it is characters – people – which bring it to life.

I accept that I may well have missed some way to unlock further story; I will say that my play through ended when I decided whether I wanted to go to Trafalgar Square or the Houses of Parliament. However, some things I’d have liked to see in this game in general are:

Elaboration about the setting, particularly addressing the hook in the title about astronomical territories. This is a great hook. While we’ve seen plenty of games – heck, we’ve seen plenty of fiction – set in London in its various guises, a British empire which controls planets in outer space? Steampunk? Oh, yes, please!

Some explanation of the narrator. In some games, figuring out who the narrator is is part of the game. But here, there was precious little sense of direction or purpose without anything like that.

I’m a sucker for settings like these, don’t get me wrong, and I usually enjoy walking around fictional London as much as I do the real London. But there’s very little to work off here for me to really say I want more.

Eclosion

By Buster Hudson. (Twine; IFDB; download to play)

Time to completion: 10-15 minutes (your mileage may vary)

Three cycles since fecundation. The pharates can taste our thoughts. Their pupal minds yearn for mothers’ milk.

You are sending commands to a parasitic, insectile entity, and there are a number of steps it must complete before it can successfully parasitise the host. Your task, then, is to figure out the correct order for the steps. By turns icky and sinister, Eclosion fits well in the Ectocomp

The puzzle is aided by informative failure messages, but even then, I took many turns to figure out a vaguely correct sequence. There is no question of error.

The writing in this game is deliberately wielded as well: the language is florid, like that favoured by Lovecraft, but terse; a tally of the casualties (or the pharates you fail to guide to eclosion) reminds you of the consequences of your clumsiness. This is body horror the way I like it.

XYZZY nominee: Hana Feels

By Gavin Inglis (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Time to completion: 15-25 minutes

[This game contains discussions of self-harm/self-mutilation. Please exercise discretion.]

Hana has been acting unlike herself lately. Can you find out why?

We, the player, see Hana’s feelings through the eyes of four different people. Each is meant to play a supportive role in her life, but their different personalities means that their support can express itself in very different ways. The catch: the only thing you can control is what other people say to Hana. Some of the NPCs would have been self-centred had we only been able to see from Hana’s point of view, but being able to play through their perspectives – and seeing their doubts and awkwardness – made them much more sympathetic, even when they say things which would be frankly hurtful.

Hana’s journal entries provide immediate feedback about your conversational choices. I found myself wondering how I could optimise outcomes for Hana – or, indeed, if it was even possible. But there’s something to this, isn’t there? No matter our intentions, our words of comfort can so easily be interpreted in the exact opposite of what we mean.

Depending on the branch you end up getting, the overall tone of Hana Feels could be either cautiously optimistic or achingly sad. Despite occasionally getting to experience Hana’s perspective, she remains distant; we can only ever reach her indirectly, through the filter of other people.

Hana has been nominated for Best NPC in the XYZZY awards, a fact which delights me, even if I’m never really sure what makes an NPC ‘good’. The most I can say, though, is that the emotional investment the PCs pay into their interactions with Hana pays off. Each character reacts believably and sensitively to what the other says. A comparable game would be Hannah Powell-Smith’s Thanksgiving or Aquarium, in which conversation is fraught and intricate as a dance.

Hana Feels ultimately deals with some weighty stuff – Hana, after all, has to deal with a lot and she doesn’t always do this in a healthy way – but there are areas of levity, and perhaps even hope.

The Domovoi

By Kevin Snow (Twine; IFDB)

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Cover art: view from the inside of a dark hut

Your friend is a storyteller, and she’s polishing her latest work about a domovoi, or protective house spirit, lingering in a guttered hut. You are her audience.

The Domovoi is a game about storytelling. Like Whom the Telling Changed, you get to influence events in the story, but where the PC works against an antagonist in Whom the Telling Changed, here the story is a collaborative work. Your friend may express doubt or satisfaction at your choice, and the PC’s perspective outside of the story in the making allows for in-universe commentary. The unnamed NPC in Domovoi has her own views, after all, and if you suggest something with which she disagrees, she will probably slant the story to include that, but make her feelings known.

This game is also a pleasure to play, not least because it is styled attractively. Like Beneath Floes, it features illustrations that set the mood and whose colour schemes demarcate changes in perspective.

Perhaps true to oral tradition, the story you help to tell can vary between play-throughs, depending on the choices you make. The game didn’t dwell on the meta aspect much, though, focusing instead on the meat of the story.

In summary: The Domovoi is an introspective work which taps into Slavic folklore, with a lively NPC and a story within a story. Recommended, if nothing else than for its luscious illustrations and sound effects.

Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai

By Florencia Rumpel Rodriguez (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: sepia-tinted close-up of a smiling woman with coiffed hair, head on her hand

Evita Sempai centres around one woman’s adoration/love for Eva Perón, who was the first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. It is told in a series of episodes from the narrator’s perspective, centred around encounters with Perón.

This game has social relationships at its core, but where other games allow us to manipulate our position in those relationships, the narrator of Evita Sempai already has a predefined position in her social circle. Dropping the player in all these relationships in medias res felt a little disorienting at first, but it also helped to flesh out a fully-formed protagonist who was not only in love with Eva Perón, but also a sister, daughter and breadwinner.

I went into this game without any knowledge of who Eva Perón was, but it’s not strictly necessary. Context will certainly explain the later events in this game, and perhaps explain other NPCs’ reactions to the titular first lady.

I found the narrator’s relationships with NPCs difficult to follow initially, but this is really a minor quibble. Evita Sempai is neatly styled, with changing backgrounds highlighting the transitions between sections.

I am a sucker for local detail and this game does a nicely subtle job of it, even though (to my memory) city and place names are almost never mentioned. Evita Sempai explores a real-life setting not often found in IF, which is definitely something I’d like to see more of.

The Warbler’s Nest

By Jason McIntosh (Parser; IFDB)

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Cover art: a bank of reeds on a sunny day

Time to completion: 15-20 minutes

You are searching amongst the reeds for eggshells. If you believe the tailor, these are what you need to take back what is yours.

The Warbler’s Nest doesn’t immediately give up its story, but rather reveals it both through cutscenes and through environmental detail. This is aided by the mechanic, which is basically a treasure hunt. Given that this game is rather short, though, to reveal more about the story would spoil it. All I will say is that this game taps on faerie folklore and rituals related to them. It follows the interpretation of faerie folk as being intensely selfish yet bound by immoveable, arcane rules, which gives a quietly sinister air to the game as a whole.

Overall: understated horror is one of my favourite genres, and I really like how The Warbler’s Nest handled that. This is a gem of a short story, well worth the 20 or so minutes it takes to play.

You’re Tiny People. Can You Open The Fridge And Get The Lemon?

By Clickhole. (Custom CYOA; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: a tiny hand sticking out from a white grating

Clickhole has built a reputation for prolificacy, having released 20 games in 2015 alone. Their games are usually absurd and light-hearted. Their games usually have long titles which presents its central premise. Then again, I have not played many of Clickhole’s games, so I shouldn’t really generalise like that…

In Tiny People, you play a… group (swarm?) of tiny people, navigating someone’s apartment. At your size, everything is huge. How will you get to the lemon? And what’s Music Duck doing there?

Tiny People favours photos over textual room descriptions to illustrate the environment, which was really a welcome change to the usual Clickhole house style of generic stock images. It also features an especially location-based world model, even if it mixed cardinal directions with relative directions (you can go leftward and east in this game).

The perspective brings to mind other games with smaller-than-human PCs – A Day for Soft Food and Snack Time in particular. The close-up photos of everyday objects from a non-human perspective remind me of Mateusz Skutnik’s 10 Gnomes series.

The central premise (i.e. the fact that you, the PC, appear to be a swarm of tiny people) is already surreal enough, but the ending is even more so, almost to the point of incoherence. Your mileage may vary, here: fans of Clickhole’s writing will probably enjoy this, but those who are not may find it over the top. Still, I found this a reasonably enjoyable, short, slightly absurd piece.

Two tiny utopias

The TinyUtopias jam is a very informal game jam, first mooted by Emily Short in a Twitter conversation two weeks ago. Cat Manning writes about it here. It was envisioned as a jam for very short games which encapsulate a utopia – a world which was, if not perfect, then better. The existing games, if listed on IFDB, can be found here, and I will say here that I, too, submitted the morning after to the jam.


The Shape of Our Container is by Rocketnia. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

The Shape of Our Container is a peaceful, conversation-led game about lying in the grass with your loved one. Similar to the other tiny utopias, there is a broad sense of forgiveness and peace. Structure-wise, the game has a broadly branching time-cave structure, allowing large variations between play-throughs. This gives the impression of living many parallel lives, of the impression of time passing.

Container is definitely polished and has fairly high replay value. Short, tender and intimate.


Fridgetopia is by Mathbrush. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Fridgetopia has been described by the author as “mechanically utopian”, in that it doesn’t necessarily sketch out a utopia per se: there is not much world-building here. But this is not a slight against the game. Rather than describe your interactions with a specific space or time, Fridgetopia instead gives you tools with which you can create your own world, to a certain extent.

Fridgetopia is very short, and perhaps not very polished. It reads as much as a coding exercise (albeit an interesting one) as a game, but it does hide at least one secret, which… let’s just say it deserves the label of ‘fridge horror’. Very clever.

Kotodama

By Aidan Doyle. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: the kanji characters for ‘kotodama’

Tokyo has been hit by a poetry outbreak. You, a robot, have been sent to deal with it.

Kotodama is set in a world in which poetry is akin to a contagious disease, and that shapes much of the world-building. This much is evident from the first line:

The lobby of the Tokyo Skypoem is filled with panicked humans, their faces scarred by unbridled metaphor. Paramedics carry stretchers bearing limerick-riddled corpses and haiku-exposed skeletons.

The writing sparkles with wit, and the game’s use of metaphor (that is, making it have literal consequences) called to mind Patanoir. Kotodama also gives a welcome depth to the world-building by giving a nod to familiar narratives such as racism or the role of immigrants. This seems to have some link to the title: according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, which the game quotes, the concept of ‘kotodama’ applies especially to Japanese in its ‘purest’ form – that is, the language without any loan words – yet, definitions of what counted as ‘pure’ varied over the years.

Kotodama is relatively short, but is highly polished (I found the Poetry Dojo to be a stroke of genius) and very cleverly written. Highly recommended.